Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

JAPAN DAY 2: Ueno Park, Daidaya

On our second day in Japan we spent most of the day in Ueno Park enjoying the cherry blossoms. In Japan, the cherry blossoms are a huge deal and everyone comes out on the weekends to be near them. Simply walking around the park looking at the trees and taking pictures, there are thousands of people.

And it is worth it. The park has over 1000 trees and when they are all in full bloom it is an amazing sight. I was not at all prepared for how beautiful these trees are. The wood is dark and contrasts with the pink-white blossoms. The blossoms cover the tree densely so that the trees are all flower with not a speck of green leaf. When a breeze blows, blossom petals fly off the trees like snow. And they are everywhere.

During the weekends, the Japanese people have hanami parties where they stake out a spot and picnic all day under the cherry trees. It looks incredibly fun, people set up shop on their claimed tarp real estate and sit there all day with friends talking, eating and drinking and enjoying the view and the occasional flower petal snow storm.

Of course, spending all day drinking does have certain side effects. It might just cause you to put on a mask and run through the park acting crazy.

I could have stared at the cherry blossoms forever, but there are other things to see in Ueno Park, including several museums, a shrine and ... what's that noise. Oh yes, about now my stomach started rumbling. It was lunchtime. And this is when I discovered something else pretty marvelous. The walkway to the shrine was filled with stands selling different kinds of prepared foods. Street food, if you will. All the types of food that have "yaki" in their name. There's tako yaki, yakitori, yaki soba, okonomiyaki, and then things that I don't what they were called. Whole fish on a stick being roasted over hot coals, and hot dog-looking things on sticks.

Now, I love a gourmet restaurant as much as anyone, but I have to admit that this is what I really love. Food on sticks, fried foods, little snacks that you buy and eat wherever you can. Are you listening people out there? If anyone wants to pay me to write a book, this is what I want to do. I want to go around the world and eat food out of little stalls everywhere.

For our lunch, we opted to share an order of tako yaki (aka octopus balls), which is a dumpling made out of batter, octopus, pickled ginger, tempura scraps and green onion, cooked in a special dish that contains several hemispherical indentations into which the ingredients are poured and then cooked until browned on the outside. Then they are covered in sauce and fish shavings. They come in a little plastic container and you eat them with a long toothpick. This is a great snack. They are savory with a bit of sweetness from the sauce and the textures: soft batter, chewy octopus, crunchy tempura pieces. Very satisfying.

We also shared yakitori. Yakitori is grilled chicken skewered on a piece of bamboo. We chose the chicken and leek variety, sprinkled with salt and chili powder. It was really good ... I mean we watched it being grilled and then it was handed to us and then we ate it. But then I discovered that leeks are something of a texture violation for me. They are delightfully crisp on the outside, but have an unexpected slimy center. Bleeech. No more leeks for me.

Ueno park is full of museums, and after lunch we went to a couple of them. First the Shitamachi, which is a small historical museum that recreates typical homes and businesses in different periods of Japanese history and you can walk all into them and see how people once lived there. We also went to the Tokyo National Museum and got an overview of Japanese art throughout history. After all that we were pretty tired, so it was time to hit up the ever-present vending machines for a coffee. There are vending machines everywhere in Japan, so you never have to worry about going thirsty. They are filled mostly with green tea and coffee and water, and also sometimes juice and sodas.

At this point I discovered something amazing. I ordered up a "Cafe au Lait" from the vending machine, which promised me "“Mild and creamy taste for a relaxing moment in your everyday life.” I was totally floored when it came out of the vending machine piping hot! What is this marvelous technology? I soon discovered that most vending machines have both hot and cold selections for coffee and green tea, and some even sell creamed corn soup, which is inexplicably popular.

A vacation like this takes up lots of energy for me. I am not used to go-go-going all day long. I am more the relaxing type, so when I am on an active vacation like this, I need a siesta period in the afternoon. So after most of the day at Ueno, we went back to our hotel to rest up for dinner. At the depachika the day before, I had managed to find something I could take with me. I would not leave empty handed. Indeed, as soon as I saw these macarons from Dalloyau. Dalloyau is a pastry shop in Paris that has been selling sweets to the French since 1802. I told you they have everything in Tokyo! I have a slight weakness for macarons anyway, so as soon as I saw them, I had to have them. They didn't disappoint. Slightly crisp on the outside, giving way to a soft interior and creamy center. These were a great treat for afternoon tea/rest period.

For dinner, we went to Daidaiya Restaurant in Ginza. Daidaya is a modern Japanese restaurant. It is quite elegant and the mazelike interior where you sit enclosed in a cubicle, yet can vaguely see and hear other diners around you makes for a completely cool atmosphere. You feel private, but at the same time the hints of other life around you keeps you from feeling isolated.

They have an English menu, which was always a godsend whenever visting any restaurant. However, I will tell you that there are enough set menus, picture menus, and plastic food examples that you should not be afraid to go into a restaurant without an English menu.

I ordered yaki onigiri, which are grilled rice balls, kobe beef on hoba (magnolia) leaf, grilled over charcoal, and for dessert, sakura and vanilla ice cream. One of my favorite things about Japanse food is the rice balls. It's such a simple food, but I could eat it forever. Rice come in many varieties and this one is a grilled variety, meaning it's just rice stuck into a ball, broiled until brown and crispy on the outside, and then served to me with some kind of yellow pickles. They were smaller than the yaki onogiri I usually get at Terried Sake House in West L.A., but every bit as satisfying and comforting.

The beef was quite a production, as it came to my table on a little charcoal grill and cooked right there. The hoba leaf release aromatic smoke as the meat cooked. This again was a very simple dish - really just the beef. But the beef was high quality and the leaf added a subtle smoke that made it a delicious dinner.

I was not all that hungry, so from here I went straight to dessert. An ice cream with one scoop of cherry blossom, one scoop of vanilla, and some fresh fruit. The cherry blossom ice cream was delicious. It had a slightly cinnamon-spicy flavor.

This restaurant was so elegant and yet comfortable, with the dark brown color scheme, the screened off tables and the jazz soundtrack all combining to steer you into an intimate, relaxing dining experience. It's hard to believe this is a chain restaurant. It bears no resemblances to the chain restaurants of the United States.


OMG I wish I were there. :(

said by Garrett at 8:12 AM Delete

Lol. The bit about the creamed corn soup made me smile. Did you swing by a McDonald's while you were there? They sell the corn soup too. They also put corn in their burgers and pizza. It's a disturbingly corny experience.

said by Chubbypanda at 6:38 PM Delete

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